Where the Wild Things Are

Reviewed By Collin Souter
Posted 10/16/09 21:52:45

"I ate it up, I loved it so"
5 stars (Awesome)

The best compliment one can bestow on Spike Jonze and Dave Eggars’ adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s classic picture book “Where the Wild Things Are” is that it remains in the spirit of its source material and will likely garner the same divided reaction as those nine sentences did over 40 years ago. The movie triumphantly earns this compliment. It is not only a vital piece of work that celebrates and understands the mindset and imagination of a child, it does so in the same uncompromising and unsentimental way. It makes no obvious choices. It goes where most movies aimed at kids seldom think to go and I suspect children will have a slightly better understanding of it than many grown-ups.

I have heard differing opinions. Some critics have stated that kids will be bored and that adults will take to it like an arthouse flick. I would strongly urge parents to consider letting their kids see it for themselves before making the judgment call to keep them at home. Where the Wild Things Are is not a straightforward narrative film, but therein lies one of its greatest accomplishments. The story inhabits the mind of Max (Max Records), a lonely, imaginative and reckless 9-year-old boy. It only makes sense that the movie should take giant leaps in logic while maintaining an unusual stream-of-consciousness complexity. Have you ever read an adventure story by a 9-year-old? They’re a lot like this.

That is not to say that Where the Wild Things Are is childish or uncontrollably self-indulgent. Far from it. Eggers’ screenplay takes children very seriously and makes a compelling argument that people in their younger years are far more complex than when they get older. If you want clues into a child’s psyche—what they truly believe, think and feel—their own personal notebook and doodles is a great place to start. Few films have validated that imagination and even fewer have bravely used it to navigate an emotional landscape quite like this film does.

Everything starts out simple enough. Max plays outside in the winter chill by himself. His parents are in the midst of a divorce (we never see the dad). One night, when Max sees his mother (Catherine Keener) with a new boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo), it sets off a tantrum that ends up with Max running away from home in his wolf outfit, with his mom chasing him and losing him. This slight change in storyline might seem starkly different from the story Sendak envisioned where Max’s bedroom magically changes into a forest, but the overall effect remains the same. Anyone who has ever had a childhood knows that being sent to your room and making yourself king of the Wild Things is the psychological equivalent to running away from home. It only lasts for a shorter period of time.

Max takes a boat and sets sail until arriving on an island, the name of which is never revealed. The Wild Things—great, big, hairy or feathered creatures with deep, meaningful expressions—inhabit this landscape, but live without a king. Upon his arrival late at night, Max is made king by the gruff Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini), who takes to Max like a father, son and confidant. The reactions from the other creatures vary from cold indifference to perplexed to loving. The first order of business: “Let the wild rumpus start!”

Audiences will notice mid-way that there will not be much in the way of a conventional “plot” within this film. Viewers will either get over that hurdle or just scratch their heads in bewilderment. It’s Max’s world and it’s either time to start a rumpus, build a new fortress, start a new society or play war. That’s the agenda, until it’s time to go home. Naturally, such an agenda is plagued with consequences. It's all fun and games until someone gets hurt, physically or emotionally.

But where is home? Is Max really on this island? It depends on what you mean by “island.” Where the Wild Things Are is not just about being a child, but about being an adult and in this world Max learns about the complexities of human nature. The movie confronts harsh realities of life with blunt honesty in stark contrast to the whimsy that surrounds it. As King of the Wild Things, Max learns what it must be like to be a parent and guardian. The creatures look to him for answers, but when he has nothing to offer, it speaks volumes of his powerlessness as a mere human being, a bitter pill to swallow for any child.

But consider the group he is forced to look after. Carol speaks of his frustrations with contradictions while longing for a past that might never have been. He has made Max the King, but eventually cannot trust him. Can Max make Carol’s hopes and dreams come true? And can he really shut out all darkness and sadness with the wave of a hand? Probably not. Two other creatures, Judith and Ira (voiced by Catherine O'Hara and Forrest Whittaker, respectively) travel together. When Max sees the two creatures physically fighting, he is told they are in love. Of course they are. And then there’s Alexander (voiced by Paul Dano), a goat-like creature who feels his voice is not being heard by anyone. The mysteriously named KW (voiced by Lauren Ambrose) is a free-spirit who ignores the rules of the land and has little use for a King, not unlike Max's real-life older sister who seems to have abandoned him. So, who are these creatures? They’re Max, of course.

This may all sound like a dreary exercise in child psychology, but that’s a small price to pay for a film this poetic and layered. It’s a tough sell. Luckily, Jonze has an expert special effects team along with Jim Henson’s Creature Shop to bring these characters to vivid life and to help lure in curious filmgoers with an appetite for the fantastic. The voice actors and effects crew bring these creatures to life so successfully, you’re rarely thinking about what it must have taken to accomplish such a task. Likewise, Max’s world looks astonishing, full of simple, familiar landscapes and primitive, yet visually arresting creations.

But young actor Max Records deserves a great deal of credit for making the film work as well as it does. You often hear of actors saying how hard it is to act in front of a green screen or next to a statue of a character that does not really exist yet. Records has a tall order in that he’s not very experienced, he has to make every one of his reactions seem natural (he does) and that the Wild Things have just as many emotional layers as his character. But this kid is a natural and has the perfect look in his eyes of bitterness, and sadness with potential for mischief and joy.

As someone who works with kids Max’s age on a daily basis, I can honestly say that this film gets kids right. So few films do, when you stop and think about it. Most roles written for kids consist of dialogue beyond their years, with little understanding for how kids process information. Max (the character) is a real kid, thanks to Jonze, Eggers, Records, Karen O and Carter Burwell’s alternately rousing and soulful score and, of course, the Wild Things themselves.

The debate over this film will be a curious one. Those with a nostalgic connection to Sendak’s book will wonder if kids these days still relate to it the way they did (where I work, they do). Parents might protest that the film is too cerebral and melancholy to use as entertainment at a child’s birthday party. Perhaps. And some might find the movie just plain weird. For myself, I related to it as an adult and found that Max and I had much in common as far as being confounded and perplexed over the intricacies of human nature. “Where the Wild Things Are” certainly will not connect with everybody, but I doubt I will have a more meaningful, stimulating, engrossing or emotionally complete moviegoing experience like this all year.

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